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Democracy or the Curriculum? Vote Here!

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Back in September, I became part of a four-member team planning a mock presidential election for my school. What a great opportunity to introduce our elementary students to American democracy in action, we thought. After all, presidential elections occur only every four years, and this one promised to be the most exciting and meaningful in quite some time.

The team – which included our library media specialist, the administrative intern, a 4th grade teacher and myself – began by debating the benefits of creating our own voting program versus using a national Web site. We questioned whether we wanted to simply track data from each of our own classrooms, or perhaps have the ability to compare our school data with the rest of the state or even the nation. I even went so far as to create a SMARTBoard interactive school map that would change the color of each classroom into Red or Blue, depending on how the vote went. CNN, look out!

Ultimately we selected the University of Virginia’s online site (youthleadership.net) to help us manage our mock vote. As evidence that we weren’t the only teachers excited about this idea, we were actually the 1300th school in Virginia to sign up. We ordered all the teaching materials and the fun stuff (stickers, tattoos, balloons, posters, etc.), then sent out instructions for classroom teachers, anticipating some enthusiasm for what we were sure would be a great school-wide learning experience.

And that is where the disconnect began.

When the administrative intern came to our specialists’ PLC meeting and described the plans for Election Day, I heard mutterings of “How much time is this going to take?” and “Why did they pick that day?” Well, of the 7-day voting window the Web site offered, we chose our school picture day, figuring that one totally disrupted day was better than two. The kids could have their pictures taken and cast their vote in one relatively smooth package.

Then the classroom teachers started dropping into my computer lab to vent. “Why are we doing this?” “It’s not in our curriculum.” “We don’t have time to make posters.” And the ultimate salvo—“This is nuts!”

I was shocked. What is more important for children to learn than the democratic process? How can we help them become productive citizens if we ignore this in school? We were not promoting one candidate over another (of course). I carefully counted the posters made by students and hung them two-by-two in the hallways. And we asked students to prepare short speeches about each of the major candidates for our school’s morning news show, with a two-minute limit for each party each day. We weren’t playing favorites—we were just teaching and reinforcing the electoral system.

I guess some teachers never listen to their kids talk. Maybe that is an unfair comment, but when I have kids in the lab working on projects during lunch and after school, they are constantly getting into the election — who they would vote for and what they believe. And I am routinely forced to intervene when the voices get too loud or the rhetoric gets a little too personal.

“No politics,” I say. “This is a politic-free zone.” And they always come back with, “Who are you voting for, Mrs. Jones?” And I always say, “I can’t tell you.” The election is important to them!

Our Election Day came all too quickly. Students walked in that morning to a front hallway, library and computer lab all decorated with bunting, red white and blue streamers, and footprints on the floor leading to the voting stations. The posters were carefully moved to more than 75 feet from the polling stations, and election officials were chosen and trained (in 60 seconds) as they entered the polling places.

Each student carried their voter card with their username. The younger students used tickets and dropped them into one of two decorated boxes while the older kids logged onto the online site to verify their registration and vote. We had privacy screens around each of the stations, and election officials were quick to catch on to moving away from the screen when it came time for the voter to actually cast the ballot — even if they first had to read and explain each screen to our many non-English readers. We passed out “I voted” stickers as students left the voting area, and the kids waited quietly for their classmates to finish. It was fabulous.

On bus duty the next day, I asked one of the 6th graders what she thought about the voting. She looked straight at me and said in her beautiful West African accent, “It was a privilege.” Our intern overheard a young student telling his dad: “We got to vote, and I got a sticker, and I think ____ is going to win,” all in one breath as they waited in line at the grocery store after school.

As she picked up her daughter, the parent of one of my Robotics Club kids told me she was so pleased to see this school election. “We are not citizens, you see. We have retained our Indian citizenship. But our daughter will be voting when she grows up, and I am glad she was able to participate today.” We’re now waiting for the data to come in so we can see where we stand with the rest of the schools participating and then watch as our classrooms turn red and blue.

So let me ask you: Is it really so terrible to lose one day of teaching about ancient China or Mali to participate in a mock election? Can’t we bend from “The Curriculum” just once in four years to connect what is happening on TV every waking moment of the day to the learning experience in our school?

Yes, I know our scores are watched, and we have to make AYP and all that. And I know it is “one more thing” teachers are asked to do. But in my book, real life takes precedence over the sacrosanct curriculum any day. School has always been – and should always be – about preparing our democracy’s next generation of active citizens. We would be failing ourselves and our kids if we didn’t try.

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